On Frictionless Scale-Making

I was actually thinking along very similar lines to CKelty [PDF] when I began looking at the literature on scale-making this week. In the world of the internet scale-making is all about scalability, about the ability to go from a website which can handle a few hundred users to one which can handle millions. Google recently launched a new service, App Engine, based around the promise that you’ll have Google behind you if your application takes off and needs to scale.

The reason I was thinking along these lines is that I recently finished Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky argues that one of the defining features of the internet (once it has become a ubiquitous and prosaic part of our lives) is that it reduces the barriers to collaboration and collective action. But while the ridiculously easy group formation fostered by the internet makes it easy to form a group, the very fact of scale no longer serves as an index of group-strength. He gives this example from Howard Dean’s presidential campaign:

because Meetup makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused people into thinking that they were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of of organizing groups — the 2003 Dean Meetup simply brought out a much larger percentage of Dean supporters than would have shown up previously. We’ve seen this sort of effect before, as when written correspondence on letterhead stopped being a sign of a solvent company, thanks to the desktop-publishing revolution.

In CKelty’s piece he makes a similar point, arguing that the internet can serve as a lubricant, reducing friction. But, as Tsing says in the introduction to her book, “friction is not just about slowing things down,” but is also essential for forward motion, as when “the rubber meets the road.” It is so easy to send an e-mail now, that in order to make a statement one has to do something creative, like send peanuts in order to get some attention. (Of course, if you’re going to send peanuts, you’ll be doing it via nutsonline.com)

I can’t help but feel that one of the reasons the anti-war movement petered out so quickly after the invasion of Iraq was that it had been too easy to mobilize millions of people to come out in the streets, the movement never built up the grassroots organization necessary for a long-term struggle. Nor was it necessary to overcome difference through a shared ideology. I have no idea if it is true, but when during one of the early post-9-11 marches on Washington I complained to a veteran of the 60s anti-war movement about how so many groups were hijacking the march for their own micro-agendas, she told me that in the 60s they had the opposite problem: you could be kicked out of a march for not being a Trotskyite or whatever ideology the group organizing the march adhered to. True or not, it does seem that while the internet makes it easy to “work around the friction” (to borrow CKelty’s phrase), some friction is still needed when the rubber meets the road.

2 thoughts on “On Frictionless Scale-Making

  1. bq. But while the ridiculously easy group formation fostered by the internet makes it easy to form a group, the very fact of scale no longer serves as an index of group-strength.

    An excellent observation. Does this mean it doesn’t scale? If it gets bigger in the same fashion, but loses its ability to accomplish its intended function, it seems like the opposite of scalability (well-explained via the internet example)!

  2. Well, some things scale, and it is possible to use the internet to organize real-world political action, but not everything scales at the same rate and in the same way. Although I didn’t go into it, I was partially responding to a line in CKelty’s paper where he suggests that the scaling of the internet is quantitative rather than qualitative. Shirky’s book suggests that it is both.

    Wikipedia is a good example. The vast majority of edits are by people who make only a couple of minor contributions. That is a much lower barrier to participation than previously existed for such projects. Of course, it wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a core of extremely dedicated people. Shirky says that most online collaborative efforts describe a power law curve. The long-tail of online participation is a kind of scaling, but its a very particular kind.

    You can watch Shirky give a book talk here.

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